Dear Doctor, You’ve Got a Hex on You!
How much you know gets in the way of how well you explain
by Reeteka Sud, Ph.D.
Image credit: Doug Savage
As a Psychology graduate student at Stanford in the 1990s, Elizabeth Newton did a study in which she assigned participants to one of two groups – tappers or listeners 1. Tappers were asked to pick a song most people would know, like “Happy Birthday,” and tap the rhythm of the song on a table. The listeners were to guess the song. Before the game began, Newton asked tappers what the odds were that the listeners would guess correctly. On average, they said 50%. Even that number seems low… Who in the world has not heard “happy birthday to you,” right? When the game got underway, it turned out that tappers greatly overestimated the odds, by about 40 times! How come?
Turns out when a tapper tapped, he or she was hearing the song in his or her head. If you think about it, it’s impossible not to ‘hear’ the tune! Meanwhile, the listeners couldn’t hear that tune — all they could hear was a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet communication’s enemy #1: the curse of knowledge. The knowledge that you, as a presenter, have – the information you know. Talking with that as your foundation just makes sense. After all, that is the knowledge you have acquired after much hard work! So why is that a curse? It’s a curse because once we know something, it is very difficult for us to imagine what it was like for us before we knew that. It’s a curse if I think you know everything I know and I talk to you in ways so that you can’t understand me. The worst part is that it’s a sneaky curse. No one sets out to intentionally let their knowledge become their barrier… but it happens to those who aren’t constantly aware of its presence and proactively trying to neutralize it.
“Communication is not something you add on to science, it is the essence of science.”
You have been on the receiving end of the curse!
Has this happened to you? You talk to an IT guy about what could be wrong with your computer, only to realize his answer makes no sense to you. Or talk to a family member who bakes phenomenal pies and when you ask her for the recipe, her advice includes not-so-helpful instructions as “make sure the dough feels right.” If yes, then you have been at the receiving end of the curse. These individuals, like many others, are people whose instructions make perfect sense to them. Sadly, to their listeners, it sounds like disconnected taps!
Even everyday conversations involving suggestions, jokes, feelings – all fall within the curse’s purview. In fact, anytime a miscommunication occurs, the curse is lurking nearby. The said misperception (or blunder, depending on the scale of damage inflicted) happened because someone communicated as if they themselves were in the audience.
Why are we cursed?
Psychologically, some believe that the curse is an undesirable side effect of the “do unto others” principle. By simulating mentally what we would want in someone else’s position, this dictum helps us out in many life situations. The trouble is that we don’t have to put any deep thought into what other people really know or want. When communicating, this can end up frustrating the poor speaker, who can be left wondering, “I get it…why don’t they?”
How your presentations become cursed?
* “Basics”: it’s all relative!
So, you start your presentation by “going over the basics.” Even when your audience is familiar with the topic – say when presenting to your lab – you must be careful. Just like the audience for those experimental subjects tapping out “happy birthday to you,” the majority still did not get that that was what the tapper was referring to. Is what’s “basic” to you as the presenter also “basic” to your audience? Are you tapping to them?
* Speaking in “expertise”:
Observe, if you will, the next time you ask another scientist, “What do you study?” Or if you really dare, be mindful of how you answer it yourself! Does your explanation turn into a ramble? One with all the buzzwords of your research tossed in? You dutifully mention those buzzwords, only to find a glazed look and an intense struggle to pay attention in your audience. Have you noticed what language you are speaking? Sure, the words are in English, but the language is “Expertise.”
It is kind of a “default setting” to speak in Expertise. The topic at hand is one we know very well. Much of our lives, our energy every day is spent steeped in those projects – planning, doing the experiments, troubleshooting, data analysis… so on and on, and on. So when we give a talk, we know what we mean. How frequently is that true for our audience?
* Repetition does NOT prevent (or treat) the curse: You’ve heard this, I am sure: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then remind what you’ve just told them.” Especially when it comes to scientific presentations, this is an oft-repeated sentiment, nay mantra, to learn the tricks of the trade. While not completely devoid of merit, the problem is that repetition is not the cure for the curse of knowledge.
Instead, switching gears from speaking expertise to speaking “sticky” will win you the audience and their applause.
The moral of the ‘tappers and listeners’ experiment is that we ought to have a universal language – one that is understood by audiences who aren’t as deep in the know about your research, that’s not littered with catch phrases whose meaning is privy only to a select few. In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die 3, authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath outline six qualities that can transform how you convey your ideas, be it to your boss on the future directions of your project or to an audience gathered to hear you present a summary of your research.
One quality is concreteness. Inevitably, a universal communication language would have to be concrete. Aesop’s fables are a remarkable example of truth made sticky because of the concrete mental images evoked in the listeners’ minds. The dismissive comment made by the fox about ‘sour grapes’ does far better than if he had worded it as ‘don’t be a bitter jerk when you fail.’ The message in both cases is the same, but its shelf life immensely different!
In much the same way, what makes a presentation stick in your listeners’ heads is if they can visualize it. Something that is concrete, that helps them see your point of view, something that engages your audience’s thinking. Even though the speaker is the only one talking, it is still a two-way communication. In Made to Stick, the authors make the case that “the way you deliver a message to the audience is a cue to how they should react… with a story, you engage the audience…”. In fact, “stories can single-handedly beat the curse of knowledge.”
Defeating the curse: Stories that reflect your agenda
Dr. Bonnie Bassler, a microbiologist, was featured in Science 4for the brilliance of her presentations. The word used to describe her presentations was “dazzling”. Seriously, can you picture it? A “dazzling” presentation and Hollywood is not involved!
Among the tips she had for fellow scientists to make impactful presentations, Dr. Bassler shared, “These are detective stories with mini mysteries…” I found this a very powerful and practical way of incorporating stories into my presentations. It’s true, every experiment is a story! Investigating mysteries is an inseparable part of what we do. Why not give it more room on the stage, in our presentations?
I hope that I have motivated you to incorporate stories in your presentations. I leave you with this cue from scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson on HOW to include stories. Most scientific presentations follow a template he calls “and, and, and”: Here is a figure… AND here’s a graph… AND here’s another graph… AND here’s our conclusion. Dr. Olson offers a neat alternative, a new, improved plot line: And, But, Therefore.
See him describe this template in a brief presentation at TEDMED 2013:
Here’s an example of how Dr. Olson and his colleagues used this template for their presentation last year at the Coastal and Estuarine Research Foundation (CERF): “Sea level was relatively stable for 8000 years AND coastal communities were built on the assumption of stability, BUT over the past 150 years the level has been rising. THEREFORE, a new approach to coastline management is needed.”
Information overload is around all of us, all the time. Without a narrative structure, without a story, the meaning of the information is lost. Let’s not give our audience only the information. Let’s dazzle them! Let’s tell stories…
For tips on “making presentations that stick” from Chip Heath & Dan Heath, see: http://wp.stolaf.edu/speakingcenter/files/2012/07/MakingPresentationsThatStick1.pdf
1. Newton, L. (1990). Overconfidence in the communication of intent: heard and unheard melodies. Ph.D. Dissertation, Stanford University.
2. Heath, C., Heath, D. (2008). Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House, Inc. New York, NY.
3. Cohen, J. (2013). Great presenters: lighting up the auditorium. Science. 4 Oct 2013, 76-77
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